Black in the Ivory Tower
The Walrus|November/December 2020
Why it’s so hard for academics of colour to pursue their dream projects
HADIYA RODERIQUE 

In early June, #BlackInTheIvory went viral on Twitter. Created by Shardé M. Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, and Joy Melody Woods, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, the hashtag asked Black scholars “to share their experience with higher ed institutions.” Academics responded in droves, detailing the myriad ways that Black scholars, scholarship, and excellence have been undermined and undervalued. One person described a colleague remarking that “Blacks have lower IQs than whites,” another reported being told that they were “not really Black because [they] are good.” Scholars were told that they were just “diversity hire[s].” One Black woman received a student evaluation alleging she had committed malpractice by presenting race as central to American history and saying she should never teach again.

That hashtag led to others within the academic community, like #Strike4BlackLives and #ShutDownSTEM —  efforts in which non-Black scholars were asked to pause their day-to-day work to reflect on ways of addressing anti-Black racism in their fields. These conversations were a part of the larger reckoning with systemic racism prompted by George Floyd’s murder, a movement that has included protests and calls for widespread change in various industries, including policing, publishing, and news media.

The responses to Davis and Woods’s call tell startling tales of unfiltered workplace hostility and racism. But, to me, they are unsurprising — they are the reality of so many professions and institutions. I have told versions of this story myself.

I went to graduate school in large part because of my isolating experiences as a Black woman lawyer on Bay Street —  in 2012, I was the only one at my firm, Fasken, which is currently the second largest in the country. To my knowledge, many firms had none. I wanted to understand why, even in the twenty-first century, statistics like this persisted, and I thought academia would offer me answers. I enrolled in a PhD program, at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, in the field of organizational behaviour and human resource management. What I did not expect to find was an environment with even fewer Black faces. For much of my time as a PhD student, I was the only Black academic in my entire program. Like many other professional fields, academia does not reflect the diversity of our country. And, for a Black academic, this can lead to a pervasive sense of being out of place.

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